Everything in life changes – we don’t need the Buddha to tell us this. Decay is inherent in all component things. Sam Taylor Wood’s famous video piece showing the bowl of fruit is a beautiful take on this. But it’s evident in the dead skin that comes off us every time we have a shower, leaf mould pulling nutrients back into soil, cloud formations dissolving into whiteness. And yet this fundmental condition of human existence is the thing we rail against most vehemently. We don’t want to admit our mortality. We resent aging, idolize youth, struggle against the tide of it like Canute, up to his waist in the crashing water, still refusing to accept what IS. Could anything be more futile than this?
Perhaps the point at which we accept this changefulness, absolutely, is the moment a spiritual life may finally begin. Once we recognise the inevitability of things, clinging to any given phenomena can be seen for what it is: the root cause of suffering. To understand this is to begin the process of letting go.
On this subject, I came across this nice piece written by Laurence Khantipalo, a Buddhist monk who lives in North Queensland. I found it most profound, and a fitting thing to post here.
A Walk in the Woods
by Phra Khantipalo
Come with me for a walk in the woods. It is hot, silent, and nearly midday but there are patches of shade here and there where we may sit. Around us trees of forty years are only twenty feet high, so great is the struggle to survive. Many die young and never mature. You can see their young skeletons being relentlessly devoured by the termites. Taller trees are scattered here and there, battered survivors of a continuous fight for life. Many of their limbs have been torn off in sudden monsoon squalls, or else they have rotted away by fungus and disease and finally fallen off. You see that “sawdust” about this tree? Its top will soon fall as some grub is eating away its heartwood. Look over there at that young tree all askew — its roots have been attacked by some predator and so it has been blown over. And there, do you see that large tree, its bark covered with mud-plaster? The termites are under that gnawing away its green wood and when they succeed in ringing it all round then, in a single day, all its leaves will turn yellow and sixty years of growth comes to an end.
Above us, young leaves of translucent green match their brilliance against the startling blue sky. Even these young tender leaves are full of holes, delicacies for the great beetles that bumble about in the evening air. Lower down these trees, the more mature leaves are ragged and lend to the forest a threadbare look. Though they must be tough still it seems they are the food of some insect. Here and there you can see at the base of branches and round the lower parts of the trees yellow leaves hanging, stiffly awaiting, as it were, the executioner who will come as a breath of wind and bring them down. Parted, they are disjoined forever — one changing process from another changing process. They fall with a crash among the undergrowth. There they join hundreds of thousands which fell before them and litter all the ground with a crackly layer of decay. But they do not just decay slowly at their own speed. Their decay is quickened by a myriad of ants, termites, worms, and funguses, all ready for food and fighting to get it, a fearsome underground jungle in miniature.
A bird calls and is still. Far away the bells on the necks of the water-buffalo at work in the rice-fields jingle. Insects drone by. You see, insects are always either looking for food or avoiding becoming the food of others. A breeze sways the trees and a huge round wasps’ nest at the top of a slender sapling looks most insecure. Danger! Flies hum and buzz, perching on a bamboo swinging in constant motion. Cicadas tick, click, and whir far and near as though they were counting the seconds of their own — and everyone else’s — lives. Seconds and minutes fly into days and months towards death. A ground lizard darts for its prey, catches it and chews the living insect with great relish. Another death in this round where death goes unremarked because it is everywhere.
Ants swarm everywhere in lines, parties or armies, in all shapes and sizes, according to their species. They play a great part in the change of this forest for they are the scavengers. They have only to scent death and they will be there ready to undertake the dismemberment of the corpse. Sometimes it is still alive. No decay is uninteresting to them, it is their livelihood and they are always busy for beings never cease decaying and dying.
Spiders too are found in great variety, all of them ready to pounce on and bite to death unwary small creatures that become entangled in their shimmering webs. They hang them, iridescent in the sunlight everywhere and it is a wonder that anything can fly and yet escape them. But even spiders do not escape death, usually from the stings of their enemies, the hunting wasps. Though the swaying bough of bamboo is most graceful it has been marked as part of this menacing world by a spider’s web hung among its leaves. And bamboos are cut down by men for their usefulness. Everything, the beautiful and the ugly is subject to impermanence.
Clouds pass across the sky bringing coolness to us here below. Their shapes change from minute to minute. Not even one second the same. They look very solid yet we know how insubstantial they are. They are just like this present time… changing… changing…
Look over here in the forest, a pile of ashes and a few burnt-out logs rotting away, and look: here is another older heap nearly dispersed. And other piles are round about with occasional carved wooden posts set in the ground, all smoldering. What are they? These mark the ends of men and women. This forest at the back of the Wat1 is used for cremation. Some days, if you go in the late afternoon you will find a group of villagers, and a very simple open-topped coffin. Everyone can see the body there clothed as he or she died and looking, as corpses do unless interfered with, quite repulsive. The day of cremation is the day on which the person died, or the very next day at the latest. Change sets in fast and hideously in a body kept in the hot countries. A big pile of logs has been made and without ceremony and with no pretentious solemnity the coffin is hoisted on top. Bhikkhus having viewed the corpse are then asked to chant and some gifts are given and dedicated for the good of the dead man. Then without more ado paraffin is splashed over the pile and it is set alight. Some stay to see it burn. You can soon see the body roasting through the flames when the thin-walled coffin has burnt out… until amidst the embers there are only some charred pieces of bone… “Aniccaa vata sankaaraa…”
Now the sun, “the eye of the day,” has changed his position, or we have changed ours and our short walk in the woods is nearly over. What have we seen that does not pass away? Even though I may say that I look out of the windows of my hut every day and see the same trees, how near to truth is this? How can the trees be the same? They are steadily changing they are unstable and certain to come to an end in one way or another. They have had a beginning and they must have an end.
And what about this “I” who sees these trees, the forest, the burning ground and so on? Permanent or impermanent? Everyone can answer this question, for we have seen the answer in the forest. When “I” feel depressed and look at the trees they seem stark, ugly moth-eaten specimens. But when “I” am glad and look upon them, see, how beautiful they are! If, while on our walk, we looked only at the impermanence “out there,” now is the time to bring the lesson home to the heart. Everything that I am is impermanent, unstable, sure to change and deteriorate.
If impermanence meant change all the time towards better and happier states how excellent our world would be! But impermanence is allied with deterioration. All compounds break down, all made things fall to pieces, all conditioned things pass away with the passing of those conditions. Everything and everybody — that includes you and me — deteriorates, ages, decays, breaks up, and passes away. And we, living in the forest of desires, are entirely composed of the impermanent. Yet our desire impels us not to see this, though impermanence stares us in the face from every single thing around. And it confronts us when we look within — mind and body, arising and passing away.
So don’t turn on the TV, go to the pictures, read a book, seize some food, or a hundred other distractions just to avoid seeing this. This is the one thing really worth seeing, for one who fully sees it in himself is Free.
— The Jewel Forest Monastery
Sakhon Nakorn, Siam
1. Wat is the Thai word for a Buddhist monastery.
Source: The Wheel Publication No. 186/187 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981). Transcribed from the print edition in 2005 by a volunteer, under the auspices of the Access to Insight Dhamma Transcription Project and by arrangement with the Buddhist Publication Society. Minor revisions were made in accordance with the ATI style sheet. Pali diacritics are represented using the Velthuis convention.
See also The Three Basic Facts of Existence III: Egolessness (Anattaa), The Wheel Publication No. 202/203/204.
Copyright © 1981 Buddhist Publication Society
Access to Insight edition © 2006
Thanks to http://www.sxc.hu/, user ‘zweettooth’ for the nice image.